History and Introduction

Distinctive Excellence: Defining the Future of Saint Mary’s College

History and Introduction

For more than 150 years, Saint Mary’s College of California (SMC) has occupied a prestigious role as a Catholic college rooted in the life and work of Saint John Baptist de La Salle, founder of the Christian Brothers. Initially serving students’ needs with commercial, classical and scientific programs, SMC recreated its curriculum in 1943 to emphasize the deep and broad study of the liberal arts and its value for an examined life.

These three “founding traditions” – the liberal arts, Lasallian and Catholic heritage –  intersect across the four schools at Saint Mary’s today: the Kalmanovitz School of Education, the School of Economics and Business Administration, The School of Liberal Arts and the School of Science.  With approximately 4,200 students, 38 undergraduate majors and 18 graduate programs, Saint Mary’s was honored in 2013 in the prestigious “Colleges that Change Lives” – one of only 40 liberal arts institutions receiving this recognition, and the only Catholic, only California and only Division I university on the list.

As the institution’s 29th president and first lay president, James A. Donahue launched a comprehensive strategic planning process during his first year in 2013. He aimed to engage the Saint Mary’s community in continuing to build on its strengths to reimagine a bold future for the College.  The strategic plan aimed to affirm the College’s mission and distinctively position the institution, one of the oldest in the Western United States, for its future during a dynamic time in American higher education.

The strategic plan defines a compelling vision for the future intellectual vibrancy, financial strength and stability of Saint Mary’s College. It purposefully integrates institution-wide priorities and aspirations while responding to critical student, faculty, and staff needs; master planning and infrastructure improvements; and the stewardship of financial resources essential to a sustainable and competitive future. The plan emphasizes a foundation in the liberal art in ways such as foregrounding the importance of critical inquiry, investigating essential questions of humanity, and promoting an examined life while recognizing the need to demonstrate the practical value of a Saint Mary’s education. This plan strives to ensure, that as the College grows and diversifies, it will preserve the core, distinguishing characteristics of a personalized, thriving Saint Mary’s community. 

This strategic plan is informed by  a  long-term vision and presents a 5-year roadmap that will further realize Saint Mary’s “Distinctive Excellence” through six overarching goals – Raising the Academic Profile and Distinction, Supporting the Student Lifestyle, Expanding Responsibility for Lasallian Higher Education, Prioritizing our Facilities and Footprint, Getting the Message Out, and Ensuring Saint Mary’s Financial Stability. 

Environment, Situational Analysis and Planning Objectives

The planning project occurred during a time of strong momentum for Saint Mary’s, drawing on the College’s mission and heritage, academic distinctiveness, and recent advances from its Academic Blueprint (a five-year academic plan) and other institution-wide plans. A variety of initiatives have raised Saint Mary’s academic profile, increased financial aid, expanded partnerships with community-based organizations and opened new graduate and professional programs. These advances have also included a new undergraduate core curriculum and the formation of a Sustainability Committee to engage the College community’s contributions to global sustainability. The School of Economics and Business Administration has been accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and, at the same time, intentionally integrated business education with liberal arts and Lasallian influences so as to infuse business and the professions with intellectually well-rounded, values-based graduates. As outcomes of this comprehensive approach articulated in the Academic Blueprint, Saint Mary’s has seen gains in student retention and graduation rates, and in achievement and satisfaction at levels significantly above other four-year Catholic and private institutions. Key indicators of Saint Mary’s progress are its favorable comparisons to the top 10 percent of peer institutions participating in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and dramatic increases in the four-year graduation rate, including Hispanic students, notably now 25 percent of the undergraduate population. These advances, coupled with a long history of balanced budgets and financial stability, have provided a solid foundation for strategic planning in response to changing times.

Notwithstanding this momentum, the higher education environment has become highly dynamic in recent years. As the U.S. attempts to regain its preeminent status in global postsecondary education, institutions are challenged to transform structures, processes and programs to be more flexible and more responsive to changing societal needs. Innovation, competitiveness and financial stability are significant themes in institutional planning and policy discussions, and plans are often focused on enrollments, costs, infrastructure, flexible models of instruction, inter-institutional and international partnerships, quality and diversity of faculty, staff and students, and access and success of nontraditional students. 

Traditional universities are also challenged to respond to a dynamic educational environment while preserving the best of their traditions.  Increasing costs of education have helped to raise students’ expectations for employment and career satisfaction.  Business, industry and nonprofit organizations are seeking new partnerships with colleges and universities to meet changing workforce needs with broadly and technically skilled employees who can adapt quickly and often.  Rising costs, rapidly developing technologies, and growing concerns about tuition levels and affordability are driving administrators and boards to increase efficiency while attempting to preserve access to high-performing students from all walks of life. And, to round this out, institutional governing boards are increasingly demanding bolder and deliberately market-driven, fiscally diverse and sustainable planning decisions. 

In this context, Saint Mary’s executive leadership has identified planning assumptions important to the College as it lives its educational mission and prepares graduates for successful employment and responsible citizenship.  These assumptions include fully realizing the College’s function as a comprehensive university, serving both graduate and undergraduate students with the range of services and levels of intellectual engagement and support consistent with its Carnegie classification.  The plan assumes quantitative objectives, such as enrollment (3,000 undergraduates and 1,400 graduate and professional students); percentages of residential undergraduate, graduate students consistent with our identity as a residential campus; sufficient numbers of full-time ranked faculty to ensure a high quality education; and ambitious fundraising goals to help ensure the sustainability of the College.  These assumptions account for current and future realities, such as including blended learning platforms, increased economic and social diversity, changing student demographics, and globalization and a continued competitive approach to Division 1 athletics, with a separate athletics strategic plan initiative to occur in the next 24 months. These planning objectives are designed to promote student achievement and affordability across demographic groups and align and coordinate functions of the College efficiently. 

Finally, as the population of Christian Brothers living, working and teaching at Saint Mary’s decreases, the College is committed to continuing for centuries to come its distinctiveness that originates in their vision and mission. The plan builds on and extends elements of our mission identified in our recent efforts to assess mission effectiveness: education for human fulfillment and a sense of vocation; integrative and collaborative learning infused with a personal care for students; nourishment of the mind and spirit through a dialogue of faith and reason and the experience of communal and sacramental signs and rituals; hospitable and civil community whose inclusivity mirrors the communion of the People of God; and commitment to the common good that respects the dignity of all and gives a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable.

The strategic planning process has also occurred in the context of initiatives such as a technology plan to enhance academic quality while maintaining an emphasis on powerful teacher-student relationships, engaged learning and shared inquiry. A comprehensive institutional marketing and branding project is directed at raising visibility, increasing market position and aligning messages to differentiate SMC in an increasingly competitive higher education environment.  The College is also engaging in a comprehensive Master Plan Update that will secure the College’s ability to improve and modernize its physical facilities, address challenges of space and location and develop stronger relationships with the Town of Moraga. Its successful outcomes will result in contemporary facilities that support the College’s strategic objectives.

Strategic Planning Project 

The planning process began formally in January 2014 and was completed with the launch of SMC’s Distinctive Excellence Strategic Plan 2015-2020 at the Board of Trustees retreat in March 2015. Led by President James A. Donahue during his first year as part of envisioning the College’s long-term direction, the strategic planning project was structured to be transparent, inclusive, interactive, data-driven, and well-communicated and to strengthen community within the College. To that end, Saint Mary’s engaged The Napa Group of Novato, California, a nationally renowned strategic planning firm, to direct the leadership-driven, yet collaborative, comprehensive planning process. The project engaged the College community to assist the President and Cabinet in developing a comprehensive five-year plan than specifies goals, initiatives, outcomes, measures, resources and implementation framework to move Saint Mary’s successfully toward achieving its aspirations.

Summary of SMC’s 5-Phase Strategic Planning Process

Phase 1 – Vision, Project Plan and Launch [January-February 2014]: The strategic planning project began with the affirmation of a comprehensive project plan (with activities, roles and responsibilities, timelines, milestones and deliverables) and a communications plan to inform the SMC community throughout the project. Emails and letters from President Donahue and a strategic plan website provided updates, documents and reports and offered constituents the opportunity to comment. The Board of Trustees and the Board of Regents participated in interactive workgroups in January to provide early-stage perspectives about key issues facing Saint Mary’s. A 24-member Steering Committee, invited and led by the president and representing a cross-section of Saint Mary’s constituencies, held its first meeting about critical issues facing the College and its essential vision and mission characteristics. The President also formed a subcommittee to provide advice about the new vision and updated mission.

Phase 2 – Strategic Planning [March-April 2014]: The Napa Group provided an analysis of “Trends and Best Practices in Private Higher Education” with a particular focus on the liberal arts and the context for Saint Mary’s. Other data-gathering included a series of “listening sessions,” individual interviews and focus groups, with a cross-section of SMC constituencies (including administrators, faculty, staff, students, deans, alumni and boards). Using this information, the Steering Committee met in February to shape a strategic framework and form cross-College “initiative task forces” of faculty, staff and students to further develop the plan’s goals and initiatives. During its spring, 2014 retreat, the Board of Trustees also engaged in two interactive sessions, facilitated by the consultants, about the higher education landscape with respect to Saint Mary’s College and opportunities to reconsider SMC’s board governance structures and processes to support the plan’s success. 

Phase 3: Assess, Build Out and Validate [April-June 2014]: Six Initiative Task Forces met over approximately eight weeks and reported their recommendations for goals, initiatives, timelines and resources needed to the Steering Committee in June.  Concurrently, faculty, staff, students, alumni and advisory boards responded to electronic surveys focused on the emerging plan. The Steering Committee reviewed and assessed this material from the community and prioritized proposed initiatives for consideration by the President’s Cabinet

Phase 4: Goals and Business Plan Finalized [July-November 2014]: In July, the Cabinet affirmed a proposed vision, mission and values and the overarching goals and initiatives that would form the core of the plan. The Board of Trustees also began a “best practice” governance project, initially with an electronic-study and advised by the consultants and BoardSource.  An Advancement Assessment process guided decisions for aligning Advancement activities and fundraising objectives with the emerging strategic plan. Campus engagement activities, including town hall meetings led by President Donahue, provided additional perspectives about the strategic plan, and the Cabinet began outlining the five-year implementation framework. The draft plan themes and the governance self-study results constituted the basis of additional interactive sessions during the Board of Trustees meeting in October. The board affirmed the plan’s direction and proceeded with the next steps in its governance review. 

Phase 5: Project Completed and Adaptive Implementation [November 2014-March 2015]: The Cabinet developed KPIs (key performance indicators) for a strategic plan dashboard, which would reflect the plan’s progress and permit regular assessment of plan objectives. Implementation task forces developed Year 1-2 activities for the five-year plan (actions, accountable parties, Phase 1 outcomes and metrics) and presented them to the Cabinet, which finalized the implementation framework, the final narrative of the SMC Strategic Plan 2015-2020, the dashboard, and the budget plan. This comprehensive package was presented to the Trustees on January 22, 2015 and at the Board retreat on March 28, 2015, with the expectation that implementation would be reevaluated and adapted annually as conditions and needs change. 

Highlights of Constituent Engagement Activities 

Members of the campus community at all levels, as well as boards and advisory councils, participated in the strategic plan’s development. Structured constituent engagement activities included:

  • The President and seven-member Cabinet provided leadership for the project.
  • A 24-member Steering Committee, incorporating the Institutional Effectiveness Committee and representing primary stakeholder groups (Christian Brothers, Trustees, Regents, faculty, staff, alumni and students), advised and guided key activities that led to the development of the draft strategic plan framework.
  • A Vision and Mission Committee offered perspectives for linking planning discussions with the Saint Mary’s three-part mission in the liberal arts tradition, Catholic identity and founding Lasallian heritage.
  • “Listening sessions” with more than 150 administrators, faculty, staff, students and board members discussed the academic focus, market differentiation, processes and systems, finances and opportunities and threats for the future. 
  • Task forces involving more than 100 faculty, staff, students and alumni recommended and prioritized strategic goals and initiatives, which were later refined into the first strategic plan draft by the President’s Cabinet.
  • Electronic surveys to undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, staff, alumni and the Science School Advisory Board elicited responses from more than 1000 members of the SMC community as the task forces were building out the plan.
  • A round of presentations and feedback opportunities during fall 2014 on campus included All Faculty Day, the Board of Trustees and campus-wide town halls, along with the open comment box on the strategic planning website.
  • Activation of “implementation teams” with more than 80 participants to recommend to the Cabinet action items, resources, timelines, accountabilities and participate in actualizing them.